Your Web Site Is Your Brand

With all the talk about branding out there (and in here, too), it’s hard not to think about the concept. What is branding, anyway? The look? The feel? The experience? Obviously, the answer is all of those things. But the question that always comes up next in my mind is: How do I figure out what to do about it?

As I’ve said before in earlier columns, your web site is your brand. Out of all communications media, it’s the one form that actually can manage to encompass all the factors that make up your brand from the design to the functionality to the experience of interacting with your company. The brand essence isn’t your mission statement, but what happens when your company comes into contact with the outside world. While many of us seem to know how to do a good job developing the look of the site, developing functionality that fits the brand always seems to be a hit-or-miss operation.

What do I mean? Even though everyone has, in one form or another, figured out that the web isn’t as much an advertising medium as it is an information-sharing medium, a lot of sites out there don’t seem to do much more than lay out the basic info (products, services, “about us,” press information, etc.)and don’t do much to actually help the visitor understand the essence of the brand or the experience of interacting with the company. So many sites are still just so much “brochure-ware.”

So what’s wrong with that? There are many reasons why that’s the wrong approach to take (and also many reasons why that’s all that you may need), but the most significant of them is that the focus is wrong. So many companies squander their opportunity to interact with their audience by producing sites that are inwardly focused on the company rather than outwardly focused on the people the company is trying to reach! Sure, people need the basic facts, but how can we use the web to improve the user experience and focus on the needs of our site visitors?

The answer lies in understanding not only what your brand is, but how it exists in the context of everyone who comes in contact with it. Knowing who comes in contact with your brand (and every place they come into contact with it) can lead to better sites, sites that effectively communicate what your company’s about and provide your customers with what they’re looking for.

The first step is to figure out who your site needs to communicate with. This necessitates taking a cold, hard look at your organization in order to understand all the people it touches.

Unlike many communications media that can be (and are) targeted to a specific group, a site is available 24×7 around the globe… to anyone. And anyone who has something to do with your company is quite likely to access the site. This doesn’t mean that you can’t target the purpose of your site (you should!), but it does mean that if you’re going to understand how your brand plays out online, you’re going to need to know who all the potential audiences are.

Start with the easy ones. Who do you sell to? Who do you want to sell to? Who’s investing money in your company? Who do you need to influence in the press? In addition, don’t forget to look inside the company. For example, what do your employees need to see when they access your site?

Next, start digging. While your company may not ultimately sell to them as end users, understanding what your channels need to know in order to do business with you is vital. Examine the lives of your primary audiences and think about their webs of influence. Do they have final say in purchasing from your company or do they have to share the decision with friends, family, colleagues, bosses, or committees? Who do they turn to for advice? Have they purchased before?

Once you have an understanding of your total brand constituencies, you have to look at the part that’s going to lead to the development of real functionality on your site: the web of interactions between your company (and brand) and your constituents.

For example, who talks to whom in the buying-decision process? Who needs what information to seal the deal? How are complaints handled? How are questions routed through your organization? How are leads doled out? How do your different constituents interact with one another in their daily lives?

Getting the answers to these questions isn’t easy and will (gulp!) require that you do something you may not have ever done before: Get out of the office and into the field. Don’t be scared. You can actually learn a lot more hanging out with some of your customers than you’d ever learn from market research studies. Really. Take notes. Take pictures. Ask questions. Then get back to the office and start digesting the information. It’s from here that you’re going to come up with the site functionality that really communicates your brand.

How so? Just think of how these interactions and needs you’ve identified by field work and analysis could be streamlined on the web and could lead to better customer experiences. Maybe your customers are concerned about ROI and need to answer to the boss on all their buying decisions. An ROI calculator that shows the value of your product in graphic terms could help a lot especially if it generates graphics that can be imported into a presentation your potential customer has to give to sell your product or service.

Do your customers have a hard time understanding how to use your products? Maybe incorporating animated installation and usage instructions can help. Do your users need on-the-spot data and tools to calculate costs while they’re on the go? A mobile-based solution might just be the ticket to boost sales and gain that competitive edge.

Sure, a lot of you are probably nodding your heads and thinking that a lot of this is obvious. I only hope so. The best, most effective sites out there already do a lot of this. Spend some quality time randomly clicking on corporate web sites on Yahoo sometime, and you’ll see that a heck of a lot of folks still don’t get it.

Just remember: The web makes it a lot easier for your customers to find other sources. You do the math. Then get out there and really see how you can make your customers’ lives easier and make your products better by focusing outward for a change.

It’s a big, strange, fun world out there. Experience some of it before you sit down to design your next site.

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